Early spring brings the magical weeks when London streets are adorned with the flowers of that showiest and most glamorous of trees, the magnolia. In a chilly but sunny spring with little rain or wind, the blooms are preserved in their waxen beauty for maybe a fortnight – intense but fleeting.


Magnolia stellata – these are usually the first to flower, and this one in Pitt Street, W8, is just past its best.

When I was a selling agent we used to receive a flurry of calls from owners of houses at this time of year clamouring for us to send the photographer to shoot their house at the critical moment “at it’s very best – with the magnolia in bloom”. Although our brochures used to look superb with the flowering trees, unfortunately they dated only too accurately how long the house had been on the market, the same as property photographed in snow. This added to the normal level of pressure to get the house sold as soon as possible, or risk having to reshoot and reprint the front cover.

Magnolias are ideal for London as although they are often planted in small front gardens, or even against walls, there is no evidence of damage to walls from the roots. Some varieties are evergreen, with handsome leathery green leaves backed with golden brown.

The plant was named in 1737 by the Swedish botanist Carl Linneaus in honour of the French botanist Pierre Magnol (1638 – 1715) It is one of the most primitive plants in evolutionary history, fossils showing that the plant existed 100 million years ago. Today it is indigenous only in China and Southern United States.


A detail of the flower, beautifully planted above a box hedge in a house in Gordon Place.


How’s this for “Wow factor”? I think this is Magnolia Soulangeana, but I want to go back with Leafsnap on my phone to check. This is the best I can do with the RHS Plant finder.


The other side of the street in Bedford Gardens, Kensington. This tree is in a south facing garden, and I think this is probably the equivalent of a male peacock showing every feather in his tail.